The Book of Judges

The cycle of sinning and redemption.

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Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson

In Chapters 6-8, God calls upon Gideon, from the tribe of Menashe, to free the Israelites from a heavy oppression by both the Midianites and the Amalekites. Gideon displays great reluctance to heed the call, very reminiscent of Moses: "[Gideon] responded, 'But sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Menashe and I am the least in my family'" (6:15). Humility is a trait often seen in Israel's most prominent leaders and secures Gideon's place in the line of Israelite redeemers. His victories in battle are rewarded with 40 years of peace in Israel.

The next judge, Jephthah (11-12:7), comes from even humbler beginnings as the son of a prostitute. He frees the eastern tribes, Menashe and Gad, from the oppression of the Ammonites. Though he only ruled for six years, one of the more notable stories comes from his reign.

Before his battle against the Ammonites, Jephthah makes an oath: "If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord's to be offered up by me as a burnt offering" (11:30-31). Sadly, it is his daughter who greets him at the door, and thus an unprecedented act of human sacrifice takes place at the hands of an Israelite.

The last major judge is the Herculean figure Samson (13-16), from the tribe of Dan. Like Samuel, whose story follows shortly after the Book of Judges, Samson was a nazir, dedicated from birth to serve God. Part of this oath meant that "no razor shall touch his head" (13:5), a trait which also ends up giving him superhuman strength.

Samson rises to redeem the people from the Philistines. Delilah, the Philistine seductress, eventually teases the secret of Samson's strength out of him. With the shaving of his head, which violates his vows from birth, God abandons him. But Samson's death becomes his legacy. Held captive by the Philistines, Samson is bound to two temple pillars. And with a final prayer to God, he strains against the pillars and collapses the temple, killing everyone inside: ?Those he killed at his death were more than those he killed during his life?He had judged Israel 20 years" (28:31).

Women in Judges

Judges contains several of the more dynamic women in the Tanakh. Many scholars see a parallel between the general decay in Israel and the treatment of women as the Book of Judges progresses. Early on we find Deborah and Yael (Chapters 4-5), who are both strong and courageous.

But they are followed up by the daughter of Jephthah, who allows herself to be sacrificed (11:35), Delilah, who seduces and betrays Samson (16:4-22), and the most troubling of all--the unnamed concubine in Chapter 19.

After suffering at the hands of her master, this anonymous woman is eventually killed and cut up into 12 pieces, each of which is sent out to the tribes of Israel as a message (19:29). When the book takes this gruesome turn, it becomes clear that the moral decay of the Israelites can go no further. It is time for the monarchy to be established.

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Elana Roth

Elana Roth is a graduate of Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she earned degrees in English Literature and Bible. She currently works as a literary agent in New York City.